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Ratner tower won’t play by city rules

The Brooklyn Paper
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A sliver of land caught in the crosshairs of two separate but equally far-reaching development plans may find itself home to Brooklyn’s tallest structure — a 620-foot office tower — regardless of what might happen to it as it courses through the city’s public review process under the guise of a residential parcel.

The site abuts the plot on which developer Bruce Ratner hopes to build an arena for his recently-purchased New Jersey Nets basketball team. The Empire State Development Corp., a state authority that would likely sponsor a plan by Ratner to build that skyscraper, can override city zoning laws, according to spokespersons for both the Department of City Planning and the Economic Development Corporation.

The city-owned and MTA-leased site in question is on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, currently Brooklyn’s tallest building.

Ratner’s Frank Gehry-designed office tower at that site would be 108 feet taller.

As described in a master proposal for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development, the skyscraper would be the dominant element of Gehry’s 13-building design, which would include a 19,000-seat arena. Office towers and apartment buildings round out the plan.

Just which state agency will sponsor the Ratner development will be decided soon, said Joe Deplasco, a spokesman for Ratner’s Forest City Ratner Company, who said the lead agency choice was “still under discussion.”

If the Ratner plan does, as expected, get sponsored by the Empire State Development Corp., it would be held up to much less stringent public review than under the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Rather than have its merits debated in at least four public hearings, a state review would only require Ratner’s plan to be publicly scrutinized at an environmental impact hearing under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Atlantic Yards would be built on MTA-owned rail yards with the rest of the parcel pieced together through state condemnations of private property under its power of eminent domain.

“At a minimum, the City Council should be looking at both plans, and at a minimum, they should be holding hearings on both plans,” said Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is representing many of the Prospect Heights residents who would be evicted.

The Atlantic Yards proposal is not nearly as far along as the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, which is currently being reviewed by the City Planning Commission, the third stop along the city’s ULURP process. Community Board 2 failed to make a recommendation on the massive rezoning proposal and Borough President Marty Markowitz approved the plan, sending along to the planning commissioners a laundry list of suggested modifications to the plan.

If approved by the City Planning Commission, the Downtown Plan would next come before the City Council.

Under that plan, more than 60 blocks in the area roughly bounded by Tillary and Schermerhorn streets, from Adams Street to Flatbush Avenue, would be rezoned to allow for the development of 6.7 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, 1,000 units of housing and 2,400 new parking spaces.

As for the sole Atlantic Yards site that overlaps with the Downtown Plan, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, the city is seeking to rezone the commercial site to residential use.

“Our plan was done before the yards plan,” said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Economic Development Corporation, which is a sponsor of the Downtown Plan. “Doing that site residential seemed the most practical scenario due to the small, odd shape of the site.”

And while it would seem that the zoning change would be a setback to Ratner’s office tower plan, people familiar with city and state zoning laws tell The Brooklyn Papers that with the MTA and Empire State Development Corp. as partners, Ratner could come in and trump those decisions.

“It seems to me the intentions of Ratner, [Mayor] Bloomberg, [Deputy Mayor Daniel] Doctoroff and [Gov. George] Pataki is to get this out of the City Council review, out of this whole process at the city level going on now, and get it into state hands,” said Patti Hagan, president of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, an anti-Atlantic Yards neighborhood group.


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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